The union that represents most of the Emergency Medical Service workforce has filed a Federal lawsuit alleging the Fire Department violated the civil rights of four of its members when it suspended one and removed the others from patient responses for speaking to the news media at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plaintiffs in the case are District Council 37 Local 2507 paramedics Elizabeth Bonilla, Alexander Nunez and Megan Pfeiffer and Emergency Medical Technician John Rugen.
Back on Active Duty
The Federal lawsuit was filed June 10 and all four of them were restored to active duty on June 17, although a spokesperson for the FDNY said an internal investigation was continuing.
Over the last 18 months, Local 2507 and DC 37's Local 3621, which represents EMS officers, have doubled-down on media outreach efforts in a bid to win pay parity for their members with Firefighters and other uniformed employees. The unions have long warned that EMS service was seriously shorthanded and say the city's bringing in 500 out-of-state EMTs at the height of the pandemic proved their point.
When asked to comment on the lawsuit, the FDNY deferred to the city Law Department.
"The FDNY respects the First Amendment rights of its employees, but those rights must be carefully balanced to respect the privacy rights granted under the law to patients receiving emergency medical care," said Nick Paolucci, spokesman for Corporation Counsel James E. Johnson. "We'll review the case."
'Have Right to Speak'
"They did not follow due process and our members have a right to speak to the press," Local 2507 President Oren Barzilay said during a June 22 phone interview. "We don't need the Fire Department's permission to speak with the press, and the Fire Department, by taking these actions, tried to instill fear into our members."
He continued, "As long as we are not talking about a patient's condition or medical issues, we should have no issue with talking with the press."
In Mr. Rugen's case, the FDNY alleged that he crossed that line, which the union denied in its lawsuit.
Mr. Rugen, who is a member of Local 2507's executive board, was suspended without pay for 30 days effective April 26 and then placed on restricted duty.
According to the lawsuit, "without any prior notice" Mr. Rugen was given a letter signed by the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Investigations and Trials that said his suspension was "based on your violation of the FDNY's Social Media and HIPAA Privacy Policies, New York State Public Health Law and Federal Patient Privacy Law/Regulations on or about April 10, 2020."
Spoke on Day Off
The union lawsuit countered that on that date, "Mr. Rugen was not working for the FDNY. On that day—his day off—he was interviewed by a television camera crew. The crew followed an FDNY ambulance and reported on the work of the FDNY Paramedics on that ambulance."
It stated that EMT Rugen "was not asked questions about any incident or occurrence and was given no opportunity at all to address the conclusory violations alleged in the memorandum."
The other union members were placed on restricted status on April 26, meaning they were barred from overtime work and patient-care duties. In addition, they were prohibited from making extra money working for private ambulances services that responded to calls generated by the FDNY's 911 system.
"The FDNY has a practice and custom of suspending EMTs and Paramedics from employment for up to thirty days without providing notice or an opportunity to be heard on the grounds upon which the suspension was imposed," according to the lawsuit.
It defended the media appearances by union members, asserting that their perspectives were critical to the public debate about the adequacy of the city's response to the coronavirus.
"In interviews with national and local television companies in late March and April 2020, Ms. Pfeiffer commented on the high number
of very sick people being treated by EMTs and paramedics in New York City and the challenge of self-isolating, disclosing that she and other paramedics had resorted to sleeping in the station or in cars to protect their families," according to the lawsuit. "She discussed the concerns EMTs and Paramedics have shared about the availability of protective equipment, questioned the wisdom of guidelines recommending the use of N95 masks only for CPR, intubation or when nebulizing patients, and reported that she and her colleagues were re-using N95s and wearing surgical masks over them."
The lawsuit called for restitution for any "loss of compensation and benefits" that came as a result of the FDNY's discipline of the four union members. It also sought to prevent the FDNY from "restricting or suspending the employment of EMTs and Paramedics" without "promptly affording them a meaningful opportunity to be heard on why such grounds might be false, mistaken or not an appropriate basis for suspension or restriction."
Officers Union May Sue
"Our local is also currently looking at filing a lawsuit," Local 3621 President Vincent Variale said. "We won three times in arbitration with the Office of Collective Bargaining against the department for retaliating against members for union activity."
He added, "It's the union's job to inform the public, the City Council and all of the politicians that are in charge of helping to govern our city. We have a responsibility to let them know what the truth is about what's really going on, and it is the only way that cover-ups are brought to light."
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.